7 beautiful canal cities in Europe that aren’t Venice
WHEN WE THINK OF CANALS, our first thought is usually Venice. On second thought, however, we may consider the packs of tourists that descend on that stunning city and the increasingly frustrated locals who want these tourists to just go away.
Quite a few European towns — that are not Venice or even Amsterdam — have historic architecture overlooking picturesque canals. So, hop on a boat or a bike and wind your way along the water in these seven canal cities.
1. Bruges, Belgium
City tours offer boat expeditions, which are an excellent way to see otherwise inaccessible parts of the city, but if the idea makes you seasick, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour. While you’re there, enjoy the hundreds of museums, Beguinage (once a place for devout laywomen to live independently without husbands), and numerous bars and restaurants. You’ll find everything from places with simpler fare of beer and carbonade flamande (Belgian beef stew) to the only restaurant in Bruges to hold 3 Michelin stars, Hertog Jan.
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
The tour also passes by Freetown Christiania, a progressive intentional community and independent state within the city of Copenhagen. If you wish to visit Christiania, you must go by land, though, since the dock is closed to non-residents. Nyhavn is also known for the bright colors of the rowhouses lining the canal edges, as well as the historic wooden boats docked along the sidewalks.
3. Empuriabrava, Spain
You can visit several medieval castles and museums in town, or you can ignore culture in favor of the white-sand beaches with gentle waves. The nearby Aiguamolls de l’Empordà Natural Park features over 330 species of migratory birds and offers a variety of curated tours through the park, all which are designed to minimize human impact on the environment. There is an overabundance of seafood restaurants, but many are open seasonally. If you plan your trip outside of the summer months, phone ahead to make sure the restaurants and other services are still open.
4. Annecy, France
It’s a perfect place to get lost for a few hours and see where you end up. That could be at the weekly fresh fish and vegetable markets scattered around the dozens of bridges in the old town, or it might be at Chateau d’Annecy. The castle looms over the town from the top of a hill and was a residence for the Counts of Geneva before a series of fires caused them to abandon it. The nearby lake and mountains also make Annecy a fantastic destination for winter-sports enthusiasts. In fact, Annecy applied to host the 2018 Winter Olympics but lost to Pyeongchang.
5. Utrecht, Netherlands
The inner canal ring is less than four miles long, making it easy to check out many of the oldest and quaintest parts of town in one day — even with stops for ice cream. For the best view across this picturesque city, climb the Dom Tower. Just be prepared for 465 steps up the tallest church steeple in the Netherlands. Rent a bike and you will see Utrecht in the best possible way — unless you want a gondola ride along the canals instead.
6. Stockholm, Sweden
If you visit Stockholm in the winter, you can see ice sheets being carried through the city on miles of waterways, and sometimes you will also see disgruntled swans or ducks, wondering why they can’t swim anywhere. Also in the winter, you can do skridskosegl, or skate sailing, which is like windsurfing but with ice skates. During either season, you can finish up a day of touring with a restful fika (coffee and pastry) in a waterside cafe — although you’ll be having it indoors in winter — or venture in search of some of the best eating in Scandinavia for dinner.
7. St. Petersburg, Russia
The 324-foot-wide Blue Bridge is the widest bridge in the whole city, although you might not even realize it’s a bridge since it’s home to bustling Saint Isaac’s Square. You can also go along the Winter Canal, which connects the Moyka with Bolshaya Neva, for some stunning views of the Rococo-style Winter Palace, the site of the famous February Revolution of 1917. Enjoy daytime boat trips along the numerous historical rivers and canals, or hit up a nighttime floating restaurant, which can feature live music and a wide range of local cuisine.
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